January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
One woman shares how early detection could have saved her mother’s life
Darcy Mauke was standing at a payphone in the Newark Airport when she heard the news that her mother had passed away.
Just 17 years old, Mauke had seen her mother’s struggle with cervical cancer over the previous four years and recognized that it was almost the end. At her parents’ urging, she traveled to a student conference in Dallas. But despite her assumed readiness, Mauke says nothing prepares you for the loss of your mother.
“Prior to her getting sick she had been a full-time working mom, an incredible businesswoman and a proud example to her daughters. She worked hard to provide for her family and had a rich social life with my dad, their friends and extended family. My parents entertained, we went on family vacations, had a wonderfully full family life,” says Mauke, now 29. “Obviously that all changed when she got sick.”
Janice Hopkins was 43 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She didn’t have HPV or any preexisting conditions that would indicate the possibility of cancer. But with three daughters and a busy career, she had become lax about regular medical visits.
“From what I understand and remember, she had skipped her regular annual gynecological exam for a year or two, and so she hadn’t had a pap smear in that long,” says Mauke.
While she can’t say for sure that her mother’s death would have been prevented if she had attained proper medical care, it’s more likely doctors would have seen a red flag. “I have to believe if they had found it sooner they could have done more to prevent her death. It wouldn’t have had as long to spread, and it had spread to her lymph nodes which makes the disease much less treatable,” says Mauke.
While patients in stage one of the disease are given a survival rate of around 90 percent, this decreases with more advanced disease or in patients with tumors that have spread to the local pelvic lymph nodes, says Arlan F. Fuller Jr. MD, chief of gynecologic oncology and clinical vice president for oncology services and academic affiliations at Winchester Hospital in Massachusetts. That’s why it’s so vital to catch the disease early.
“Early management of cervical pre-cancer will prevent progression to a more invasive cancer,” says Fuller. “The diagnosis of early cancer (Stage I) leads to surgery that may be conservative in young women and preserve reproductive function. In women who have completed childbearing, radical hysterectomy or radiation therapy will result in cure for the majority of patients.”
Janice underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy over the next four years and spent a total of 13 months in the hospital before passing away in 2003.
“I still saw her as an amazingly strong example — she faced her illness with bravery, dignity and grace. But I also saw how horrible her life became,” said Mauke. “She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
While there is no increased risk of developing cervical cancer if you have a relative with disease, Mauke recognizes the need for extra vigilance.
“I have always been hyper-vigilant about my own cervical health and about my health in general,” says Mauke, who makes sure to never miss an annual gynecological exam or regular physicals. “At my most recent annual exam I was told that the recommendation for Pap smears is changing from every year to every three years if you’ve never had an abnormal pap. But because of my family history I will continue to get one every year.”
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends pelvic exams annually for most women. The American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend women ages 21 to 65 have a Pap test every three years. Women under 21 can skip the test, as can women over 65 who are not at high risk for cervical cancer. If you’re unsure, talk to your gynecologist.
Now a new mom herself, Mauke hopes to instill the same healthy values into her 9-month-old daughter, Grace, as she grows up. “I will definitely teach my daughter that taking care of her body and her health is of the utmost importance,” says Mauke. “Reproductive health may be embarrassing for young girls to talk about, but I think it’s important to dispel that discomfort by having open and honest conversations early on.”